Understanding the society that produced the Commune

Paris Babylon: the Story of the Paris Commune Paris Babylon: the Story of the Paris Commune by Rupert Christiansen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wittily told and extensively researched, this brief account of the Second Empire, the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune has two special merits. First, it is more sociological than ideological: Christiansen aims neither to condemn nor exalt the revolutionary Communards or the Versaillais who tried (and ultimately succeeded) to destroy them, but rather to understand all sides. He is of course appalled by the atrocities, a few by the communards (much exaggerated by Versailles propaganda, but there were some) and far more by the Versailles government troops, especially during the semaine sanglante and following, but such horrors by one side do not necessarily justify the decisions and confusions by the other. The book's second great virtue is its descriptions of curious aspects of Paris and Louis Napoleon's II Empire on the eve of the series of disasters that destroyed it: war with Prussia, then the siege of Paris and finally the Commune. There is a brief account of Baron Haussmann's transformation of the city's space, and its unintended social and economic consequences. And the chapter, "The Spermal Economy," on French medical opinion and prejudices about sex (how much to indulge and how, and how upper-class men used the Opéra as their exclusive brothel) is very amusing, though of doubtful relevance to the Commune, whose proletarian defenders' sexual behavior surely had little to do with such official notions. The account of the war is too brief to understand it, and the intense debates among Blanquistes, Prudhonniens and Marxistes, Républicains, and monarchists and other conservatives, are merely alluded to.

For readers new to the subject, this book provides a lively and fair overview of events, with bibliographic notes for those who want to understand more. And for anyone, its anecdotes and portraits, e.g. of the Empress Eugénie and of the pathetic and mysteriously uncommunicative Emperor, or Haussmann and even of the young and insolent Rimbaud (who may or may not have got to Paris during the Commune — we don't really know) make it a lively and suggestive addition to the bibliography.

For me, as I continue developing my new novel around this dramatic episode, it will be more helpful for portraying the bourgeois, in the middle between the great revolutionary and reactionary forces. 

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Afghanistan: a personal view of the traumas

The Kite RunnerThe Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rich boy grows up with a terrible sense of shame for a childhood act of cowardly betrayal, and only decades later redeems himself in a punishing campaign requiring great courage. This is the story thread for a book that is really about the traumas of Afghanistan, in its several stages: from the almost feudal stability under the king (overthrown in 1973), when the narrator's widowed merchant father and others in the dominant Pashtun ethnic group could live very comfortably at the expense of the despised Hazara servant caste, to the Communist government where the push for rapid reforms and the rise to power of other ethnic groups (including Hazara) roused violent resistance, to the triumph of the Taliban, celebrated as liberators but then quickly become far worse tyrants than any of their predecessors. The descriptions of how such a rapid chain of disasters affected the urban, educated Kabul élite are vivid and memorable. Also closely observed and moving is their struggles to cope with their sudden plunge of status as exiles in California, the narrator's once-powerful father as a gas station attendant, an ex-general living on his pride and the dole, and both of them trying to sell junk in a weekend market. All this makes the book worth reading — though the story is too melodramatically neat, every punishment exactly fitting the crime. There's also a movie, which is much weaker and insipid, because it leaves out all that makes the book's episodes scary in order to focus on the thin story of redemption.

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The book should be a stimulus to find out more of what's behind the current disasters of that country. Hosseini does not pretend to any political acuity, that is, he does not attempt to evaluate or explain these huge events, but he may lead the reader to try to find out more. The conditions of the Hazara people , for example, have been a major part of the nation's drama but little discussed outside the country — or even among Afghans, because it's a source of shame. We really need to re-examine the Communist period, which began to accomplish many good things, especially in reforming ethnic relations and opening opportunities to women, before the resistance by patriarchal tribal leaders, abetted by the U.S., escalated the violence and the Soviet army invaded with all the usual clumsiness of invaders, causing the violence to escalate even more, and so on. There were some missed chances for creating a freer society. 

La Commune: a lesson in audacity | Agnès Poirier | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

Here's an excellent summary which will help you understand why I feel passionate enough about this episode to make it the center of my new novel — which I am just now starting.

La Commune: a lesson in audacity | Agnès Poirier | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk


City of revolution: (my) work in progress

We were so busy in Paris these past few days that I didn't have a chance to blog about it. Here's what I wrote the night before we left, at the invitation of Red Room to write about that city:
City of revolution | Geoffrey Edmund Fox | Blog Post | Red Room

Two things I've decided about my next book: it will not be "historical fiction" in the sense that Mario Vargas Llosa dismisses that term, i.e., a costume drama of two or three characters with "history" as the stage set. Rather it will be an attempt to understand history itself, or rather one of its most world-consequential chapters. And that Paris, the whole of Paris, with its millions of individuals, factions, conflicting interests and desires, will be the protagonist. The chapter of interest will be the Commune of 1871, along with the war (France v. Prussia, 1870) and ensuing the siege that led up to it, and the repercussions still felt down to our times in places as far away as Tahrir Square in Cairo. Many of the actors and actions of the Commune are well-documented and hotly debated; more than a thousand books were published on it in the first 50 years (somebody took the trouble of counting, in the Bibliothèque Nationale). But other characters and events — including the anonymous proletarians of the Commune, the later readers inspired by their example for other movements in other lands — can only be reconstructed imaginatively.

What I propose is to try to comprehend history through characters like Weber's invention of "ideal types", but instead of leaving the "types" as abstractions, imagining them into life in all their confusions and complexity. The book I envision will be essay and novel, analysis and fiction, all meant to say something not about a dead past but about our living aspirations. Like Tolstoy's War and Peace, or Javier Cerca's Soldados de Salamina, and even Vargas Llosa's "non-historical fiction" recreations of the past (La fiesta del chivo, La guerra del fin del mundo, etc.) and all imaginative literature that aims at more than entertainment.